I’m a Taowinist, a cross between a Taoist and a Darwinist.  I remember the night I realized it. I was reading Alan Watts on Taoism and this sentence jumped out at me:

The lifestyle of one who follows the Tao must be thought of as a form of intelligence. That is, knowing the patterns, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy dealing with them.

At the time I had been thinking alot about Darwinism and the serenity prayer. You know the serenity prayer, right?

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

It had occurred to me already that evolutionary adaptation paralleled the serenity prayer.  Take beavers. Their thick fur coats are evidence of their adaptive acceptance that they can’t change the weather.  Their teeth are evidence of their adaptive ability to change tree trunks. The life forms that survive are the ones that exert themselves to transform what they can transform and not what they can’t. A beaver whose body manifests the courage to change the weather and the serenity to accept trees as unchangeable would not survive to reproduce. Adaptation is the process by which we accumulate the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change. We accumulate it in our abilities, habits and in the case of humans, our habits of thought.

That night reading about the Tao I recognized that serenity is yin and courage is yang.  Evolutionary adaptation is a process that eliminates creatures that are yin when they need to be yang and yang when they need to be yin.  Evolution selects for creatures that pick their battles well. For us that means ” knowing the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy dealing with them.

Even the phrase “survival of the fittest” captures the dichotomy.  Is it fittest as in physically fittest — yang, courageous and assertive? Or is it fittest as in fits in the most readily — yin, serene and receptive?

It’s both, depending on what the situation calls for.

I’ve long admired the serenity prayer.  To my ears it’s the most exquisite, precise and succinct formulation ever of a universal tough judgment call and the wisdom required to deal with it. This week I noticed that its form can be applied to other universal tough judgment calls.  Here are a few:

1. Should I try to change this?

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses* and regretted no’s* on the question “Should I try to change this?” because the last thing I want is the serenity to accept the things that will prove changeable or the courage to try to change the things that will not prove changeable.

Of course, the challenge is that what can be changed can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today. I join this?

2. Should I join this?

Grant me the enthusiasm to join the things that will prove to have been worth joining, the aversion to not join the things that will prove to have been not worth joining, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I join this?” because the last thing I want is the enthusiasm to join things that will prove to have been not worth joining or the aversion to not join things that will prove to have been worth joining.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been worth joining can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

3. Should I stay with this?

Grant me the dedication to stay with the things that will prove to have been worth staying with, the impatience to not stay with the things that will prove to have been not worth staying with, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I stay with this?” because the last thing I want is the dedication to stay with things that will prove to have been not worth staying with or the impatience to not stay with things that will prove to have been worth staying with.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been worth staying with can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

4. Should I be consistent here?

Grant me the flexibility to try new things in situations in which changed behavior will pay off, the steadfastness to be consistent in situations in which changed behavior will not pay off, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I be consistent here?” because the last thing I want is the flexibility to try new things in situations in which changed behavior will not pay off, or the steadfastness to be consistent in situations in which changed behavior will pay off.

Of course the challenge is that which situations are the ones in which changed behavior will pay off can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

5. Is this significant?

Grant me the focus to concentrate on the things that will end up proving significant, the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving insignificant and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Is this significant?” because the last thing I want is the focus to concentrate on the things that will end up proving insignificant or the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving significant.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove significant can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

6. Should I say this?

Grant me the honesty to say what will prove to have been helpful, the tact to not say what will prove to have been unhelpful and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I say it?” because the last thing I want is the honesty to say what will prove to have been unhelpful or the tact to not say what will prove to have been helpful.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been helpful can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

7.  Should I sacrifice here?

Grant me the selflessness to sacrifice in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it, the selfishness to do my own thing in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been not worth it and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I sacrifice?” because the last thing I want is to sacrifice in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have not been worth it or the selfishness to do my own thing in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it.

Of course, the challenge is that situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

8. Should I delay gratification here?

Grant me the patience to delay gratification when the future payoff will prove to have been worth the wait, the impatience to gratify now when the future payoff will prove to have been not worth the wait and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I delay gratification?” because the last thing I want is the patience to delay gratification when the future payoff will prove to have been not worth the wait or the impatience to gratify now when the future payoff will prove to have been worth the wait.

Of course, the challenge is that situations in which the future payoff will be worth the wait can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

9. Should I keep hoping here?

Grant me the yearning that keeps hope alive when I will be able to make my dreams come true, the realism to let go when I won’t be able to make my dreams come true and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I keep hoping?” because the last thing I want is the yearning that keeps hope alive when I won’t be able to make my dreams come true or the realism to let go when I will be able to make my dreams come true.

Of course, the challenge is that the dreams that will come true can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

10. Should I be ashamed here?

Grant me regret when there are lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices, no regrets when there are no lessons to learn and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yes’s and regretted no’s on the question “Should I regret?” because the last thing I want is regret when there are no lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices or no regrets when there are lesson to learn.

Of course, the challenge is that whether there are lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

11. Should I expect more of the good I’ve got here?

Grant me the sense of entitlement to expect more of the good I’ve had when it will be forthcoming, the surrender to let go of the good I’ve had when it will not be forthcoming and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I expect more of the good I’ve had?” because the last thing I want is the expectations to hold out for more of the good I’ve had when it won’t be forthcoming or the surrender to let go of the good I’ve had when it will be forthcoming.

Of course, the challenge is that whether it will be forthcoming won’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

12. Should I give here?

Grant me the generosity to give to those who will be motivated by it, the firmness to not give to those who will be motivated by it and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I reward?” Because the last thing I want is the generosity to give to those who will not be motivated by it or the firmness to not give those who would be motivated by it.

Of course, the challenge is that who will be motivated by it can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

13. Should I keep track of who owes what here?

Grant me the contentedness to stop keeping track of who owes what in cooperative friendship, the wariness to keep track of who owes what in competitive negotiations and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the questions “Should I keep track of who owes what?” because the last thing I want is the contentedness to stop keeping track of who owes what in competitive negotiations or the wariness to keep track of who owes what in cooperative friendship.

Of course, the challenge is that which relationships will turn out to have been cooperative friendships or competitive negotiations can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

14. Can I trust them?

Grant me the trust to invest in those who will prove trustworthy, the wariness to distrust those who will prove untrustworthy and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the questions “Can I trust them?” because the last thing I want is the trust to invest in those who will prove untrustworthy or the wariness to distrust those who will prove trustworthy.

Of course, the challenge is that who will prove trustworthy can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

15. Should I comply with the letter of the law?

Grant me the obedience to comply with the letter of the law when it serves the spirit of the law, the defiance to disobey the letter of the law when it doesn’t serve the spirit of the law and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I comply with the letter of the law?” because the last thing I want is the obedience to comply with the letter of the law when it doesn’t serve the spirit of the law or the defiance to disobey the letter of the law when it doesn’t serve the spirit of the law.

Of course, the challenge is that what will serve the spirit of the law can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

16.  Should I doubt?

Grant me the doubt that motivates a search for more wisdom when the path is unclear, the confidence to stop searching when the path is clear and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Should I pray to be granted the wisdom?” because the last thing I want is the doubt that motivates a search for more wisdom when the path is clear or the confidence to stop searching when the path is unclear.

Of course, the challenge is that whether the path will prove clear can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

* Regretted yeses and no’s are false positives and negatives. A regretted yes is simply a yes you regret having said.  For example, saying “yes I can change this” when it turned out  you couldn’t. The more wisdom you’ve got, the fewer regretted yeses and no’s

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